The woman arrived with Lenten ashes marking her forehead. As she sweated through her workout, the ashes smudged, diminished and finally vanished. By end of class she was washed clean. An entire Lenten journey, right there in the YMCA workout studio.
“It’s a fun run. We all have to do it,” Jaylin told me. “You should come.”
So I did come, not to run but to watch. Not just to watch but to help. On my arrival, they were breaking for lunch, so I set out along the course marked out, intending to pick up random discards: cups, juice pop wrappers, and other assorted trash. Wouldn’t want the kids to trip and fall.
As I walked, I also read the signs. Professionally printed on foam boards and stuck in the ground like political placards, personalized signs urged kids on in their running. Each sign had been purchased for $10 – this was a fundraising event. This elementary school, classified a Title I school, is in an impoverished neighborhood. These families didn’t have extra cash. Someone who loved these children paid for the privilege of encouraging them.
As I walked I read. As I read, I prayed. As I prayed, I shed tears. Oh, the love of these parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. I wondered about each little one’s story. I spoke thanks into the spring breeze for these teachers and administrators who had purchased signs encouraging these kids.
And then out came the next batch of kids, full of energy and enthusiasm, cheering for themselves and their classes.
“Parents,” the teacher with the microphone said, “you can spread out anywhere on the course.”
Though not a parent to these children and yet with no volunteer position assigned, I seized the opportunity to head out onto the course – ALL the way to the fence, clear across the field, to the middle of the backstretch. I was alone there. Just me, the backstop, two big trees and the soccer field beyond the fence.
Then, here came the kids!
I clapped, shouted and whooped as they came by. Some smiled, some looked away, and some pretended not to notice. Next time around, I offered high fives: “High fives! Free high fives! A little extra energy…who needs a little extra energy!”
Now really here came the kids. They would re-route to slap me five, cut off classmates, even, to swing near. A few slowed to a walk to get a “re-charge.” I learned a few of their names. Plenty complained that their stomachs were hurting, it was hot, they were exhausted. Some of the walkers began jogging when they saw me. A few stayed wide and clear of traffic to get in as many laps as possible.
Some walked and read each sign. Looking for theirs. A teacher had stopped to take Alexandra’s picture next to hers – I’m sure to be able to share with the family – but now kids were asking, “Where is MY sign?” “Can you help me find my sign?”
I had counted about 75 signs, but there were hundreds of kids.
I was their sign… “You can do it!” “Look at you go!” “Way to keep up the pace!” Way to keep going!” “Whoa, you’ve run how many laps?!””I’m so proud of you!”
Free high fives, free energy, free encouragement. That’s all I had. Nothing for sale. Everything to give. Cost me nothing. And it filled me up.
Suddenly, one little first grader came ’round the bend. I held out my high-5 hand but instead she grabbed me around the middle and held me tight, for just a second, before jogging on.
Oh my. Filled to the very brim. What had I done to deserve this plenty?
I cajoled the last three girls to complete their last lap. One jogged, one walked, one made me wait saying she didn’t want to run…and then sprinted ahead of me shouting, “I bet I can beat you!!”
And so they did. So they all did.
I watched them enjoying their juice pops and meandered by. Not a soul noticed. Not a soul cared.
I looked again at those fund-raising signs, with names of these little ones printed in colorful ink, all in a row along the course they had run. They had run and not grown weary, walked and not grown faint.
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. ~ Isaiah 40:31
What had first looked like tombstones set in a row, now looked like runways set for take-off. Even the crazy guy, Rob, who advertised “best deals on cruises” by donating 10 bucks to the cause must have known what I now know, that Alta Vista Eagles are meant to soar.
What a privilege it is to witness them take flight.
After three long days of sitting in scientific meetings telling me Americans don’t get enough exercise, I skip out the front door of the convention center and into a city I don’t know and turn right. Weaving my way around pedestrians, past store fronts, around tree stumps, over uneven cobblestones, I swing wide to navigate past a woman walking her dog.
Smitten, of course, it’s a sweet old dog, I pause to greet the lumbering black and white beast and smile at his owner who is gamely trying to pull her charge along. He’s being a bit contrary, ambling begrudgingly despite his master’s prodding.
The woman looks at me and back at the dog. “See?” the woman says nodding in my direction,”She’s sporty. We all need our exercise.”
I’m sporty, apparently, because I go for a brisk walk in sneakers and track pants. I speak exercise to those I pass, not in a ‘you should be’ way but a ‘don’t you wanna?’ way. This woman and I have never met, but one look tells her a lot and speaks even more.
Oh, the irony, as there are thousands of sport science experts just around the corner at the convention center, presenting their findings, debating the details, and lamenting the sad state of the health and fitness of the people in their communities. Ah, progress marches on and science with it. Knowledge is powerful, but what about the power of practice?
If we walk the walk, words are optional.